We often forget in the cold, reflective light of history, that there are real flesh-and-blood people in the events we’re examining.
People who stormed the battlements, fought in wars, made bold scientific discoveries, and in the case of Robin Campillo’s BPM (120 Battements par minute), made repeated and concerted attempts to bring about profound social change against considerable odds.
It is these people that are celebrated in this engrossing film which, even at 140 minutes long, never feels bloated, and never once loses sight of the fact that it’s not documenting events alone but the people, the earnest, passionate, committed people, who made them happen.
People like HIV-positive Sean Dalmazo (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and his boyfriend Nathan (Arnaud Valois) who meet up as members of the Paris arm of ACT UP, the former a founder, the other a relatively new recruit, and fight, in ways deeply-considered and sensationalist – they felt they had no choice in the face of a seemingly indifferent French government and health bureaucracy – for a better people for the HIV-infected people of France.
It is a doggedly uphill fight much of the time with the French government reluctant to admit the country has a serious problem – at the time of BPM, its infection rates are outstripping that of its neighbours Germany and Italy – or to put in place badly-needed preventative measures and policies.
What is an academic and political exercise for the powers-that-be is anything but for the likes of Sean, Sophie (Adèle Haenel) and haemophiliac Marco (Théophile Ray) and countless others like ACT Up’s leader Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), all of whom have a very real and abiding interest, the fate of their own lives, in what transpires from their efforts.
By taking a macro issue micro, and taking us into the heart of Sean and Nathan’s life together, their bedroom conversations and their moments of romantic joy and mortal endangerment, we come to appreciate exactly what was at stake, that it wasn’t simply angry people looking for something to protest about but people whose lives were being deleteriously affected by the inaction of the French administration.
The screenplay by Robin Campillo and Philippe Mangeot makes it clear though that there wasn’t wild, selfish activism at work nor the work of anarchistic mobs simply looking to make a statement for the sake of it.
ACT UP, whatever you might think of its sensationalist methods, and to be fair they had to be sensationalist to a large degree since they felt, often justifiably, that no one was listening to them, actually had a well thought-out, much-debated program of action, all of which was hashed out in weekly meetings where various viewpoints were listened to, absorbed and turned into plans of action.
BPM opens with one of these sometimes consensus-rich, often fractious meetings where debates happen in front of everyone or not at all – at one point later in the film when tensions are noticeably higher the debate spills into the hallway and is promptly shut down; as democracies go, ACT UP was admirably pure and idealistic – and where the lives of many of the characters play out as their opinions and viewpoints are influenced by the state of their health at the time.
These meetings, which are far more riveting than you might think thanks to the rich, fulsomely-expressed nature of the rapid-fire back-and-forth exchange of ideas, are one of the punctuating elements that Campillo uses in BPM, both to give the narrative structure, but also to help us understand that motivated ACT UP and its members, and how ideas expressed in a meeting ended up as history-making events out in the real world.
The director takes these meetings, and microscopic images of the AIDS virus multiplying and ACT UP’s letting down their hair on the dancefloor – a frequent means of blowing off steam but also bonding anew are relationship were strained by their intense battles for justice and equality – and uses them to mightily bolster an already-strong storyline, reinforcing again and again that the fight wasn’t motivated by ideology alone but by real, impaired, sometimes broken lives in danger of breaking altogether.
Theirs is no dispassionately remote struggle but in-your-face and materially of-the-moment, and Campillo brings that vividly to life, especially as HIV-positive finds his health deteriorating and HIV-negative Nathan is often forced to stand by and watch the man he loves simultaneously fight for what remains of his life and fight a bureaucracy that didn’t seem to realise how great a foe they were up against (or, as ACT UP alleged frequently, didn’t care).
The brilliance of BPM, which brings history alive in epic moments such as massive (and joyful) protests during PRIDE parades and attacks on big pharma companies who, ACT UP asserts, are withholding vitally-needed drug results, is that it never forgets that it is the people at the heart of these events that matters.
What they are fighting for is vitally important and absolutely necessary, and the film gives due coverage to this most momentous of fights; but it was, and remains, a fight by people for people, by individuals fighting for themselves, their friends and family, and BPM captures that in all its contrary, messy but intensely personal glory, helping us these events not just as historical markers but as the outworkings, the products if you like, of peoples’ lives.
Just like in any war, and ACT UP believed that’s what they were fighting, every battle, every skirmish and head-to-to-head piece of combat a step forward or back in a struggle they had no choice but to wage, it’s the people at its heart who fuel it, give it emotional resonance and make it grindingly, confrontingly real, something forgotten by the chroniclers of history at times.
But Campillo does not forget that for one moment of this utterly immersive, all-too-authentic film that perfectly captures what it is like to fight for your own life, not just in a personal sense but in a societal and global sense, and how great change only truly comes when people realise they have no choice but to fight, and go into battle with hearts and minds engaged, and everything that matters to them on the line.
From such conviction springs life-changing events and graphically beautiful films like BPM which chronicles the ups and downs, the wins and loses of one epically pivotal moment in history, and helps us to better understand, with passion, conviction and profoundly-moving storytelling, how personal and true, how intimate and profound, even the biggest, most noticeable moments in history are.